Sunday, 23 March 2008

Silverbeet - Swiss chard (Σέσκουλα)

Silverbeet used to grow in our New Zealand garden without being invited. It was not my mother's vegetable of choice. She used to gather all manner of horta, from our garden, the public parks of Wellington and the pine forest of Mount Victoria, but she only picked silverbeet in desperate times. She said something about the taste and that it contained too much water. The silverbeet that grew in our garden was darker green than the Greek variety, and the leaves were larger - all that rain and brown soil, probably. It wasn't as bitter as dandelion greens or vlita (amaranth); even spinach has a tang to it, which silverbeet doesn't. So I was quite surprised when I came to Greece to find that silverbeet (seskola, sefkola, sefkla) was widely grown and people used it in all kinds of dishes, much the same way as spinach.

My uncles were clearing the garden today in the village. So far, I have received about 10 kilos of spinach from them, which has all been turned into spanakopites, hortopites, spanakorizo and kalitsounia. I made a spanakopita and asked my husband to take it to them as a gift (andnot to forget to bring back a lettuce and some lemons from their garden). He returned with a bin liner full of seskoula. "Don't you ever use this stuff?" I had asked them once. "Only if there's a war coming." I should have known; habits borne through war and poverty die hard. Seskoula were considered poor man's spinach. Since they grow on their own, needing very little attention, only a person who didn't have enough land of their own to cultivate other horta and vegetables would have to resort to picking them for food, along with sorrel, mustard greens and nettles (for which I really must get over my prejudices and start using them from next season). No wonder my mother smirked whenever she saw silverbeet being sold at the local grocer's. She was thinking that, of all the horta in the world, who'd buy and eat that one? I was confused. "So why do you let it grow rampant?" I questioned my uncles. I should have guessed the answer to that one, too, given that they are organic farmers. "Keeps away the bugs."

Eating wild greens ιsn't exactly unheard of in New Zealand; the Maori had been eating them for hundreds of years before the arrival of the Pakeha. I remember a school outing at a teacher's house in Karori. I had never been to the northern suburbs before; I was a born-and-bred Mt Victorian (where Lord of the Rings was filmed), attending Clyde Quay School. Vegetarianism and a general return-to-nature way of thinking was very much in vogue in the mid-70s; it suited hippiedom to a tee. We had been on some kind of educational visit concerning nature; one of the teachers explained the theory behind vegetarianism, and then showed us the edible greens that were growing in the wild in her garden, which had a carefully tended lawn surrounded by flower beds where various aromatic herbs were growing. It was a typical drizzly day in Wellington. We sat in a kind of conservatory to shelter from the damp. She then made a salad with the greens she collected for our perusal - I clearly remember fennel being included - and invited all the children to eat them as a spread over buttered granary bread. She was also very interested to hear about my mother's use of greens and how we ate them at home. Most of my classmates tried the open sandwiches that the teacher made for us, but most only took one bite and refused to finish it off. Fair enough, it wasn't for everyone.

I'm starting to wonder whether that was the turning point for me; although my mother had been picking wild horta for so many years, I never used to eat them, never being able to see them as real food (since no one else at school said they ate them) until one day (I remember it was a Friday), I decided that they were delicious and ate a whole plateful. My mother couldn't believe her eyes when I asked for a serving of horta. She didn't ask about what had made me re-think the horta business, preferring just to bask in the happiness all mothers get when they see their children eating the healthy food she cooks for them. I think I felt guilty that I was eating horta at a teacher's house when I had been refusing to eat them for so long at our own home. Horta are such a healthful but laborious food to eat when you have to pick and clean and wash and cook and serve them yourself. Serving horta to your family means you feel the greatest love for them because of all that work you put into such a meal. When my children grow up and read this, I hope they understand why there have always been so many horta in their food.

What do you do with two kilos of highly perishable silverbeet (you've got to use it pretty much as quickly as you pick it, especially since it's organic)? Apart from the obvious (hortopita, kalitsounia, spanakopita, striftopita or spanakorizo with the small leaves and tender stalks), they make a marvellous wrapping for dolmades (the middle-sized leaves make dolmadakia, the diminutive form of dolmades, the grapevine leaf rolls stuffed with rice, while the larger leaves can be used to line the base of the tin or pot, and as a cover for the stuffed leaves), and they make a brilliantly tasty addition to stews with seafood, meat or beans, as Laurie has made it. I have also heard of their being used boiled as in horta, but this one is definitely not for me; we have plenty of stamnagathi available at the moment - it is at the end of its season, and the price here in Hania has dropped from 8 to 4 euro a kilo. I suppose I could also put some away in the deep freeze and save it for a rainy day, as we say, but Crete is covered in edible green foliage almost the whole year round. It would be a shame to waste electricity on saving somehting that comes fresh in different forms, depending on the season. As you can guess, I have a lot of work to do if I want to use while it is still in its prime. Don't get me wrong; I won't be feeding everyone grass the whole week, but the truth is that if anyone complains, they'd better make sure I'm not holding a kitchen knife...

These oven-cooked dolmades came out beautifully. Blanched silverbeet leaves are much easier to roll up than sorrel, and they make beautiful perfectly shaped parcels. I used basmati rice (an oriental touch to a Mediterranean speciality) in the same mixture as for yemista, they can be cooked in the pot (especially good with mince added and cooked in an egg and lemon sauce) or the oven. My kitchen stayed perfumed all morning from the intoxicating aromas exuding form the oven.

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Simple pilafi rice for children

Yemista - ayemista

Kalitsounia fried
Kalitsounia in the oven
Spiral pie
Hortopita (spanakopita)
Horta in winter
Horta in summer
Eggs with mustard greens
Mountain tea
Octopus stew
Wild asparagus